Red bangles are an essential part of the Indian bride’s trousseau; the color red is considered auspicious and signifies prosperity.(Inga Dorosz)

One afternoon, when I was a teenager growing up in India, my mother beckoned me to watch Oprah on cable. Oprah was profiling couples of Asian descent who had been raised in America but nonetheless entered into traditional arranged marriages. While the audience gaped, a husband beamed indulgently as his new wife shared how she was still discovering things about her husband each day even after being married for a few months. Thousands of miles away, I shook my head and thought, “I am never going to let this happen to me!”

Six years later, I found myself engaged to a man after meeting him for two hours in front of a food tray stocked with tea cups and black forest pastries, as my father and future mother-in-law compared notes about The Gita six feet away. Today, three years into marriage, I still marvel about the possible hardwiring of my system that may have led me to give my full throttled assent.

While my husband rode a horse on our wedding day much like our respective fathers had, much had changed in the intervening decades. After being reassured innumerable times that I had the right to say ‘no,’ I had the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with my prospective husband, something my university-educated mother and civil servant father never had. My future groom, a Silicon Valley geek, found himself having to defend his career choices.

Such alliances, bringing together tradition and modern liberal values, Indian and U. S. roots, have become less rare. A surge in immigration to the United States over the last few decades has brought a new twist to India’s ancient custom. The arranged marriage structure offers an invaluable way for ex-pats to keep ties to their home countries alive by giving them mates who share the same heritage. And for those with little time for courtship and dating or little inclination to search for a life partner on their own, returning to one’s country of origin to find a bride or groom is a quick and usually very dependable method.

To the Westerner, arranged marriages have become an exotic peculiarity of Eastern cultures. Recent movies such as Bend it Like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding have paradoxically both demystified and heightened the caricature of Indian marriages.

So what exactly is an arranged marriage? For the uninitiated and the unarranged, here is a quick primer: It is a match wherein the marital partners are chosen by others (typically family members), based on economic and social factors. Instead of marriage following love, in arranged marriages love follows marriage; love is learned as the marriage grows. In countries like India where the two genders do not mix very freely and family ties remain strong, arranged marriages address important needs. The attention paid to the appropriateness of the spouse, in theory, helps to improve in-law relationships (since the spouse is deemed acceptable by the family first), and increase compatibility.

The bridegroom collects a blessing kiss from a senior member of his family before going to fetch his bride. The saber is a throwback to the times of warrior kings and communities and the sword is a symbol of honor, power and the promise of protection that men carry on their wedding day. (Rajveer Purohit)

And while audiences of Oprah may gape wide eyed when a girl raised in the United States by her Indian parents chooses an arranged marriage, there was a time when it was as much a part of life in the Western hemisphere as it is still in the East. Though it might seem hard to believe, arranged marriages were once the norm the world over — when the desire for a “pure” bloodline was common across cultures. All over Europe, kings married princesses, often much younger than them, who brought kingdoms as dowry. Romantic love was then considered a lower-class practice.

More than just a method of financial planning, arranged marriages ensured that everyone found a mate and those lacking charisma were not unduly penalized. Over time, marriage based on attraction between partners became more common and the creation of a society that has encouraged dating and liberalized its rules of sexual conduct made go-betweens and the need for family approval virtually unnecessary. All to the extent that today, arranged marriage strikes Westerners as alien or incomprehensible.

Yet, while the days of Mrs. Bennett seeking suitable men for her daughters in Pride and Prejudice have long since gone, the phenomenon of arranged marriage persists in the West under different guises: online dating, mail order brides from Eastern Europe and Russia, and blind dates set up by family, to name just a few.

At the same time, in Eastern cultures like those of Japan, Pakistan, and India, the process of arranged marriage has undergone significant modifications. From a time when future spouses would first set eyes on each other on their wedding day, arranged marriage has transformed itself into a system resembling quick blind dating initiated by family or friends. Photographs and biographical data are now freely exchanged over email as parents have become increasingly liberal and westernized. Shared veto power between the boy and girl means external appearances and polished social skills come at a premium. And more ex-pat Indian grooms means that dislocation and adaptation by both brides and their families has become far more common.

An unlikely candidate

Dr. Rajveer Purohit, who has been married for three years, exemplifies the new trend. An urologist and a prolific painter in San Francisco, he reminisces in his two-bedroom apartment filled with his paintings, paint supplies, and antique furniture from Rajasthan, India.

“I would define an arranged marriage as one in which there is limited pre-marriage dating and parental approval of the marriage, and by that definition, ours was one,” he says.

A distant relative introduced him to his gynecologist wife, Dr. Mamta Purohit. After exchanging emails and speaking on the phone, then-29-year-old Purohit flew to India accompanied by his older brother for a face-to-face meeting. A few family-sponsored dates later, they decided to take the plunge.

Raised in the United States since the age of five, Purohit continues to have strong ties to India, especially to Jodhpur, his hometown in Rajasthan. “I saw my desire to have an arranged marriage as something more fundamental and proactive. It was helped by the combination of finding the right person who shared similar values,” he says.

His wife’s Indian nationality was a welcome part of her identity for Purohit. “I have a lot of affection for Rajasthan. And my marriage helped leave a lot of options open and gave both of us more mobility,” he notes. “We can think of retiring in India at some point.”

Purohit’s conservative Rajasthani family discouraged dating overtly. “Growing up,” he says, “I perceived arranged marriages as anti-modern, oppressive and fear-based choices. That my peer group viewed them the same way added to my sentiments.”

But soon Purohit found himself disappointed with the transitory relationships people around him seemed to have. He realized that he identified with the Indian community’s emphasis on loyalty, commitment and longstanding emotions, all values that have contributed to low divorce rates of Indian-Americans living in the U.S.

“I was disappointed by how relationships are commodified and subjugated to economics, finally becoming relationships of convenience,” he says. “There is a lot less mobility in the American non-arranged marriage than people acknowledge. People typically date among their own class. For example, people who are Ivy League marry Ivy League.”

Purohit, on the other hand, has seen many cases of couples in his own extended family who come from different economic classes.  Purohit felt confident that an arranged marriage would last, being based on a solid foundation. He believes “people who get into arranged marriages tend to have expectations besides lust and youth” and that “this keeps the relationship stable after temporary feelings have subsided.”

Purohit sometimes feels criticized by American and even Indian peers for his traditional choice. “I see Indian women who grew up here feeling threatened by and competitive about second-generation men going to and marrying in India,” he says. “But somewhere along the way I decided that there is no point in trying to educate peers or colleagues. It is not a public proposition that I want to go and sell, and perhaps what may be right for me might not be right for them.”

Purohit was also inclined to marry a career woman since he saw immigration to be particularly hard on his mother, who is a homemaker. Mamta seemed to him as the right blend of the traditional and the modern.

A relative of the bride smears vermillion on the groom’s forehead as the first step in the welcoming process. She will then do an ‘aarti’ wherein she will pray for him by encircling his aura with a special oil lamps. This process conveys the following sentiment: May the light of the divine be with you and may this start be auspicious. (Rajveer Purohit)

The suitable girl

Ipsita Roy, a 28-year-old scientific researcher who has also been married for three years, does not seem like the typical immigrant bride moving from India to America.   However, unlike a generation ago, the Indian women who immigrate today to be with their husbands are frequently highly educated professionals themselves. The petite and loquacious Roy shares a unique story that may not be so atypical.

“Mine was not a spontaneous meeting and falling in love with someone, and the fact that the process was initiated by our families did not and does not bother me,” says Roy, who holds one masters degree in biotechnology and another in molecular biology. She moved to the United States after marrying Sumit Roy, a mild-mannered and unassuming director in an electronic design automation start-up company in Santa Clara, California.

When Roy’s younger teenage sister responded to an ad placed in a Calcutta newspaper, little did Roy know that such adolescent perkiness would locate her future life partner. Sumit’s Calcutta-based parents, now her in-laws, liked her profile and soon scheduled a meeting with her family. After Roy’s parents, who also live in India, met the prospective in-laws, they soon gave their approval. Although Roy and Sumit had only spoken a few times on the phone before meeting in person, Roy believes “our fates were already sealed together even before Sumit flew in from the U.S.”

“I saw that my future husband trusts his family completely and had very simple criteria for a life partner whom he thought should, above all, get along well with his family,” Roy explains. She laughs and adds, “I personally feel that the real test of a marriage is when you start living together. Because after a while it doesn’t matter how you got married. I have many friends all over the world who have had love marriages and they are facing similar issues that I am, such as the division of labor between the partners, adjustment issues with in-laws.”

Ipsita and Sumit Roy on vacation in Hawaii during January 2003.

Roy avers that although some people may want to test the waters by living together before getting married, her own sensibilities were already set and defined by the environment she grew up in — an environment where “shacking up” was not encouraged and the focus was always on total commitment. “But then, it all depends on the individual’s comfort zone,” she admits.

Both Hollywood and Bollywood often depict having a series of boyfriends or girlfriends as cool.  Such images subtly suggest that relinquishing autonomy and going for an arranged marriage somehow signifies a fundamental personality failure. But the majority of all marriages in India are still arranged, even among those in the educated middle class. Roy represents the growing number of Indian women who pick from either option. “I had a lot of suitors when I was in college. My parents were open to me choosing my own mate,” she says. ”My decision to let them initiate the process was totally free of pressure or coercion. It was a leap of faith and I took it because of the trust I had in my parents.”

One difference between those of Roy’s generation and her parents’ generation is the number of ex-pat Indian men entering the arranged marriage market in India. Roy’s father initially had difficulty in facing the fact that all her prospective grooms seemed to be settled in the United States. “We are a small family and my father wanted both his daughters close,” Roy says, “but when he realized the inevitability of it he made peace with the idea that my destiny might lie abroad.”

When the honeymoon is over

Roy talks animatedly about the dream-like six months between her engagement and her wedding — of phone calls, letters and a slowly blossoming long distance romance. “ I soon fell in love with Sumit and then my situation was just like that of any other girl who might have fallen in love and was about to get married,” she explains. “The only difference in my case was that my man was discovered by my family.”

This courtship made phase two, married life, a little hard to digest. Roy contends that marriage has been harder on her than on her husband. While he remained in Santa Clara, she moved continents to be with him, leaving behind all that was close and familiar while struggling to create a new life in the United States. She also experienced some of the gender distinctions that have traditionally gone along with arranged marriage for women.  “Indian society continues to be a very family oriented society with the bride deferring to the groom’s family after marriage — and arranged marriages help keep it that way,” she observes.

Turbulence between Roy and her in-laws cropped up in the first few months. Although still based in India, her in-laws visits brought out tensions. “I was brought up with a lot of liberal ideas for girls and my husband’s family subscribes to a passive notion for women. Dealing with that, I felt like everything of consequence to me had been stolen. Soon I found myself in a desperate bid to gain affection by trying to match everyone’s needs,” Roy says. “I still keep trying even though that doesn’t work,” she adds wryly.

Roy talks passionately about trying to work through this identity crisis and reconciling the two disparate life styles — one from her parent’s home and the other in her new family. “I would like my in-laws who are in India, to stay with me permanently so that I can take good care of them, but during times of stress, while talking to them long distance or during meetings, I wonder whether I should chose responsibility or comfort,” she says. “I wanted to be very close to them but somehow it has remained a formal and distant relationship.”

The clash between traditional mother-in-laws and their modern daughter-in-laws is one of the fruits of modern arranged marriage. As younger women become increasingly westernized, prospective mother in laws seek brides for their sons who, although educated, have been indoctrinated with once common notions of passivity. Friction arises when girls brought up in liberal and semi-westernized environments refuse to be docile. Roy elaborates: “Although my relationship with my husband has evolved wonderfully over time — he is my best friend — the marriage has been tough. But that is something one faces in a love match too. But of course since my in-laws chose me, their expectations from me are greater.” With a chuckle, she adds, “it’s like an employer asking you to feel grateful after giving you a permanent job.”

“Sometimes I think that had I been solely my husband’s choice, they would have been tentative about me and grateful for any positive signs,” Roy muses. At the same time, however, Roy believes that parents who have contributed to the pick are more likely to contribute to solving any problems that arise. “Observing others, I find that if one goes through a bad phase in a love marriage parents are generally not that supportive but since they feel mentally responsible in an arranged marriage, they help the woman start a new life if things go wrong,” she says.

“I feel that arranged marriages help in keeping Indians the family oriented people they are,” says Roy, although she doesn’t necessarily think they would work well for everyone. She adds that such marriages are like shooting in the dark but also shares that this disadvantage is probably a blessing in disguise. While Roys says, “There are times I think, ‘Oh my God, I got married like this!’”, she also believes that love matches can lead to disappointment, “while people like me have lesser expectations and try to hang in there and make it work.”

Purohit also adds a word of caution about matches arranged long-distance: “It’s always better to have someone you trust confirm the validity of things. People sometimes manipulate the process and lie about who they are and what they want, using marriage as way to gain economic security.” Despite such drawbacks, he believes that the tradition is an enduring one. “I think arranged marriages are a resilient form. The format might change but the structure will stay.”

Although Purohit sees himself as an anomaly, believing it is unusual for people to be raised here and then to seek an arranged marriage, he may be part of a growing trend. His conclusion bodes well for those who would follow in his footsteps: “I can’t imagine being married to someone I would be happier with.”